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“It’s our first time” he said. “It was on our bucket list. We just wanted to see it. It’s something to do, and every summer we take a long ride.”

The group’s effort did not go unnoticed from the political side of things either.

“Thousands of motorcycles in town for Rolling Thunder,” the Republican National Committee said in a tweet as the ride began. “Thanks to all the work you do on behalf of our POW/MIAs, and our vets.”

License plates from across the country identified the locals and visitors. Enjoying the shade beneath an umbrella, his legs up and resting in a lounge chair, Daytona Beach, Fla. resident Dan Geyer, 65, said it was his first time riding in Rolling Thunder, but his second time visiting the District.

He said he had forgone prostate surgery so he could attend the ride.

Asked why he made the 800-mile trip, Mr. Geyer grew quiet.

“I’ve got friends on the Wall,” he said, referencing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “I came to pay my respects.”

While many Americans celebrate the weekend with barbecues and trips to the beach, Gary Romig, 48, said it was important to remember what Memorial Day was all about, and it was why he chose to ride along with his mother, Joyce.

“Too many of our soldiers are still missing in all different war zones,” said Mr. Romig, a retired Army sergeant first class. “If you served your country, you deserve to be here. You don’t deserve to be in some cage. You deserve our honor, our respect. This is so we don’t forget that.”

Jennifer Harper contributed to this report.